I have been watching PBS, experimentally. I do also watch it recreationally, and I have watched it educationally, but lately I've been watching it like a scientist -- a scientist with himself for a subject -- immersing myself in the airwaves of public broadcasting to take its measure at what, to read the papers or watch the news, is a time of crisis. Funding is being stripped and returned. Pundits are pontificating. Politicians are having their haymaking say. The chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels money to public television and helps its trains run on time and in the right direction, has been accused of partisanship and has made accusations of bias.
Much of this is hot air, and much of it is sincere knee-jerk reaction, and some of it is actual fear. The CPB needs money, as do the member stations who own and operate PBS -- a decentralized system as opposed to the increasingly consolidated conglomerates that run commercial television. And if this isn't the best time to see what's up with KCET -- public television, like its privately held cousins, takes it easy in the summer, bringing out reruns, Fourth of July fireworks (as if to demonstrate in this parlous time its good citizenship) and another heaping helping of Huell Howser every time you turn around -- even so, I could get a good sense of its flavor and of what sets it apart and how necessary it remains despite oft-heard claims that in the 500-channel televerse all its good work might be done elsewhere.
And in the middle of my experiment, the London transit bombings happened, and I got to see how the network handled that -- thoughtfully, informatively and without undue alarm. (They save all the raised voices for "The McLaughlin Group," evidently.) It can seem a little staid, in fact; sometimes this is a matter of substance, but sometimes it is just a matter of professorial style. Its programs are not all to my taste, nor would I even say it's all good. (It is the home of the terrifying Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his overacting little human friends -- who can seem like reason enough to revoke its charter.) And because they have to raise money from its viewers to function -- individual contributors account for the largest share of their funding -- PBS can be at times disappointingly crowd-pleasing.
But public broadcasting is ambitious in ways other networks rarely are: PBS is fundamentally the people's network and dedicated to the welfare of its viewers, not of its stockholders (of which there are none). Which is why, paradoxically, it is held to standards of accountability that the big commercial broadcasters -- permanently squatting upon airwaves actually belonging to the public, barely paying for the privilege and giving back little in return -- are not.
Though often described by its critics as elitist -- a combined Google search of the terms "PBS" and "elitist" gets 33,500 hits -- quite the opposite is true: PBS is a generalist network. It tries, often to its peril, to provide something for everybody. (Which means there is something for everyone not to like.) If it's defined merely by who can afford to subscribe, and who bothers to, that may in some tautological way be described as elitism. Its ongoing crush on things English probably doesn't help its image in that regard.
Yet it's the only major network to give you a sense that there's more to the world than sex, money and criminology; that there are worlds across the ocean, outside the city limits, on the other side of the tracks. PBS shows often criticize the powerful and explore the destructive heedlessness of the crowd. But it's also the only network that consistently betrays any sort of social optimism -- that shows people changing the world, or their little corners of it, and not merely their furniture, their hair or their job -- as in "The New Heroes" (which ran for the last four Tuesday nights on KCET), a series focusing on "social entrepreneurs" finding sustainable paths to good works, from freeing slaves to employing recovering addicts. Or "Roadtrip Nation" (Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 11:30 p.m. on KCET) in which young adults travel the country interviewing their inspiring elders to get a grasp on life's possibilities.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which brought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into existence, was essentially a rebuke to free-market television, which had failed in its 20 years of existence to become the force for good it had always promised to be: television that could make every family's living room a concert hall, a museum, a university, a forum. This promise had proved not as interesting as Milton Berle or "Gunsmoke" or "The Beverly Hillbillies," but what's in the public interest is not necessarily what most interests the public.